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A Pastor By Any other Name

March 7, 2008

I am almost finished with Viola’s book “Pagan Christianity”. I have to say this about him. He definitely makes it sound academically rich (i.e. His theory on the pagan roots of modern Christianity). But when I did a cursory background check on some of his “facts”, several of them were not accurate. Naughty, naughty. That was just a tease. I will do a thorough analysis of the book next week.

But for now, let’s keep talking about the role of the pastor in today’s church.

(Note: If I occasionally slip and say “him” or use male pronouns in my description of the role of the pastor, it is not because I am in that camp that thinks only men can be pastors. It is because the vast majority of pastors are men and it is hard for me to break away from that stereotype completely. But I will try).

In the last entry, it was noted that today’s church pastor is not functioning like the pastor of the New Testament days. The modern pastor is not as much a coach, discipler and curate as we would hope to see if things had gone unchanged over the 20 centuries of Christianity’s existence. But should we have hoped for things not to change?

All organizations, no matter how loosely structured or how spiritually inclined, adapt and become more complex. Add one person to two and the amount of relational connections doubles. Add a third person and the relational connections triple (from two to six). This number gets larger on an exponential scale as you add more people. Not only that, but all organizations get more specialized in time. Today’s doctor does not look like the MD of yesteryear. Gone are the barbers who did surgery, the surgeons who only cut off body parts and the leech mongers. But also, gone are house calls; gone is bedside compassion; gone is the doctor who doesn’t take much money for their services. Now we have doctors who never see a patient (see the movie “Awakenings” for evidence of that), but only do research. Others specialize so completely that they know more than any other physician about the secretions of the pineal gland, but know very little about other parts of the body. Surgeons today cannot diagnose, but they know where and how to cut and which laser tools to use. My wife’s nephew has a job where he make a quarter mill. a year showing surgeons how to use the specialized tools his company makes. That is a far cry from old Doc Brown who delivered twins in the morning, cut out ingrown toenails in the afternoon and visited his six patients with TB in the Sanitorium before going home for dinner at 10 p.m.

Should things have changed for doctors? Probably. But were the changes all good? Probably not.

The same is true of the pastorate. Viola is wrong when he claims that the emergence of the Pastor owes its existence to the Roman governmental system. The concept of a person or persons in charge of Christian enterprises existed from the first days of the church. Only one person got up to preach at Pentecost. Only Philip went out to preach in Gaza. He didn’t bring a team with him. Only Peter got the vision of the gentiles coming into Christianity.

But in the early church, they also had other labels for their leaders. Some were called evangelists (Philip), others prophets (Agabus), and still others Apostles (Paul, Junia, a woman). Some of them weren’t given a title (Mark, Timothy), but because they were sent out by an Apostle, we assume that’s the role they played. But in another sense, Timothy really does sound similar to today’s pastor in some of the things that Paul exhorts him to do. Teachers show up in Antioch, but are not mentioned other places. Paul teaches as well – in one case all night long – but no one calls him a teacher.

People were known by their giftings in Corinth but nowhere else. Others were known by their calling (Saul of Tarsus) and others by their position (James the supposed head of the church). So they had calling, gifting and hierarchy in the early church. They also had many names for leaders in the church.

What would happen if we started renaming the pastor of today? Some groups have actually begun to do just that. Certain charismatic circles have begun to refer to their leaders by the Ephesians 4 definitions of Apostle (see Bill Hamon) and Prophet (e.g. Bob Jones, Steve Thompson). There are others who feel that all the ministry positions have evaporated except pastor and teacher.

We recognize evangelists today (Billy Graham, Luis Palau) and teachers (Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Jack Hayford)…everyone else is mostly assumed to be a pastor (with perhaps one of the other labels added on). I have been called a Prophet from time to time when I have prophesied and when I have taught on how to hear God’s voice. I have been called an evangelist when I have lead numerous people to Christ, a teacher when I have taught for longer than a half hour at a time and an Apostle when I planted churches. But since I do more counseling than almost every other ministry, I guess I fulfill some of the functions of pastor.

Our problem today is that we probably need some new labels. Or, we need to acknowledge that the pastor of yesteryear is gone and will never return. We have become more specialized and perhaps we need to be. Some need to devote their lives to reaching certain age groups. Others are devoted to specific handicaps (the blind, lame, emotionally bereaved) to the military, to other language groups.

Perhaps a good way to handle this is to start using terms like “director”, “coordinator”, “president” and then add their area of specialization: as in “Director of Worship”, “Chaplains coordinator”, “outreach President”, etc. Even today’s pastors can be called “Preaching Specialist” or “Teaching Elder” as they are sometimes referred to. Others who are gifted at administration or marketing can be called “Executive Director”.

Is it helpful to change the names? It might aid this new postmodern generation that fears old institutions.

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